Celebrating Women Composers

Project Timeframe: 2016 – 2019

Like many music organizations, Elektra Women’s Choir is looking to encourage women composers and increase the body of outstanding choral repertoire that is composed or arranged by women. Elektra is a classically-based, adult women’s choir, so our sphere of influence is within the choral community. Adult choirs, university choirs, youth, and children’s choirs can all perform the repertoire that Elektra sings. Conductors around the world share a strong network and are always looking to each other for repertoire suggestions, so we knew that our activities would be noticed by others in and outside of Canada, and that there would be a positive result for the composers we involved in the program. 

To focus our work on this topic and to create measurable results, we created a three-year program called “Celebrating Women Composers” (“CWC”) across Elektra’s 16/17, 17/18 and 18/19 seasons, impacting as many aspects of the choir’s concert, commissioning, outreach, touring, and recording activities as possible. CWC was curated by Artistic Director Morna Edmundson. The Vancouver Foundation and the BC Arts Council each supported this across the three years in the total amounts of $31,950 and $17,600 respectively, which meant that we could truly add new activities to achieve the project’s goals without encroaching on the resources needed for our ongoing work. A Project Coordinator, Maggie Van Seters, was hired to assist the Artistic Director.

CWC’s goal was to create opportunities for and increase the visibility of women composers. Well-established and emerging composers were involved, including both Canadian composers and non-Canadians. Living composers as well as those from previous eras were included. Edmundson’s premise in creating the various elements of the program was that name recognition is one of the biggest factors in whether conductors program a composer’s work. If conductors know the name, or have the name suggested to them by a trusted peer, they have a strong likelihood of taking the time to investigate, consider, and program a composer’s work.  Ultimately, the subjective quality of each composer’s work stands on its own merits but, without the name recognition, a cycle of being overlooked is hard to break. 

In considering this project, our 2016 research looked at Canada’s two major professional associations for composers, and found that only 18% of the members (Associate Composers) of the Canadian Music Centre (155/882) and 23% (104/253) of the members of the Canadian League of Composers were women.  We also analyzed 28 ½ seasons of Elektra’s own concert repertoire, and found that only 18% (85/483) of all the works performed had been composed or arranged by women. We believed that these percentages could and should go up, and we knew that this goal was shared, and solutions being sought, in many communities around the world. 

55% of the 31 composers featured in CWC were Canadian and 45% from other parts of the world, including two who lived hundreds of years ago.  The 29 living composers were at various points in their careers, from recent university grads to seasoned professionals.

Through CWC and while delivering the project’s goals for the composers, we also increased our own awareness of women composers within and outside of the borders of Canada.  At the conclusion of the three years, the percentage of women composers across 32 years of Elektra repertoire was up 5% to 23%. Isolating the three years of the program, the proportion was 53%. The repertoire section of the Elektra website gives details.

All of the Celebrating Women Composers project goals were realized fully. Details by year are outlined in the links below. To summarize:

“Creating opportunities for” included

  • paying composers to write works for Elektra
  • bringing composers to Vancouver for residencies
  • connecting composers with potential mentors
  • arranging events in which composers built their networks
  • facilitating the commercial publication of sheet music, creating a revenue stream for the composers
  • creating an open call for a work to be selected for inclusion in an Elektra concert

“Increasing the visibility” included

  • programming works in Elektra concerts and tours
  • Inviting resident composers to give pre-concert talks
  • including works in Elektra outreach programs which reached young people and their teachers
  • encouraging performances by other choirs, which led to sheet music sales
  • creating co-commissioning projects in which the composer became known to choirs and audiences in other cities
  • filming educational YouTube videos in which composers discussed their treble works
  • Listing the repertoire on elektra.ca repertoire section with links to composer websites
  • Including program notes by the composers in Elektra Listener’s Guides
  • including music by women in high-profile professional presentations (conferences, panels, workshops, including Canada’s national conference and the World Symposium on Choral Music in Barcelona, Spain)
  • studio audio-recording works and releasing these on Elektra’s CDs
  • live concert video-recording Elektra’s performances of works and disseminating these on the choir’s YouTube channel
  • creating a “Women Composers” playlist within the Elektra YouTube channel

The composers involved in CWC through commissioning, programming, publishing, recording, residencies, and/or video production: Kathleen Allan, Carol Barnett, Abbie Betinis, Winnie Brückner, Eleanora d’Este, Christine Donkin, Maija Einfelde, Katerina Gimon, Jocelyn Hagen, Lisa Hanson, Laura Hawley, Ivette Herryman, Sarah Jaysmith, Susan LaBarr, Libby Larsen, Katrin Lohuaru, Alexina Louie, Ramona Luengen, Cassie Luftspring, Kate MacColl, Joanne Metcalfe, Kelly-Marie Murphy, Erica Phare-Bergh, Sarah Quartel, Meghan Quinlan, Marie-Claire Saindon, Clara Schumann, Karen P. Thomas, Mist Thorkelsdottir, Leslie Uyeda, Gwyneth Walker.

Celebrating Women Composers was one of Elektra’s most strategically-planned and productively-executed special initiatives in the choir’s 32-year history. It has changed the programming environment for Artistic Director Morna Edmundson, impacted positively the careers of many women composers, and sewn seeds in the community of women’s choirs worldwide.

Generously supported by:

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